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Has growth of government made the media obsolete?

Posted: February 13, 2012 at 7:45 am   /   by

Cultural critics on both sides of the aisle frequently lament that the media is too focused on the superficial and inane.  During the 2012 GOP primary, it has been trendy to complain that TV networks and online media are obsessed with coverage of the “horse race”, while ignoring the candidates’ policy platforms.  More broadly, people see the popularity of TMZ or cable news coverage of car chases and squirrel videos as signs that the modern media is worthy of scorn.

Here’s one explanation for the 24-7 focus on Tim Tebow’s political ambitions, pit bull attacks, and celebrity stalkers:  the growth of government has made the media obsolete.

In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a grotesque and sensationalistic novel describing conditions in meatpacking plants.  The public outcry over what he discovered was massive.  Angry consumers encouraged the government to get involved in the situation, and it did.  The federal government began inspecting food products, and there was no more need for the media and word of mouth to collaborate to root out the worst of practices.

Now fast forward a century.  The government has bureaucracies tasked with attempting to solve almost all of society’s problems.  The Obama Administration has launched investigations into such ills as diverse as the alleged death of 28 birds in an oil pit to suing lenders for “tricking” mortgagees into signing onto debt worth 20 times their annual income.  And where does the media fit into all of this?

The modern media is left with the scraps, digging for dirt on the cast members of Jersey Shore and publishing glorified advertisements for the latest smartphones and automobiles.  This has weakened the investigative and reporting capabilities of the overall press to far below where standards were even a decade or two ago.

Indeed, the work of the government itself is probably one of the only remaining subjects where the capabilities of an aggressive investigative media would be useful, and sadly it seems as though some of the biggest players in the market are not quite up to the task.  The sentiment that “Operation Fast and Furious could be Watergate for somebody’s career!” has often been expressed by politicos and journalists, but so far it hasn’t happened yet.  Similarly, the coverage of this week’s $26 billion mortgage lender settlement was extremely confusing.  Many of the stories failed to even include the basic storyline:  the Obama Administration had attempted to sue the banks for frauding their customers, and the case was settled out of court.  There was a lot of misinformed rambling about “another bailout” and the $26 billion figure got a lot of play, but the facts were no where to be seen.

Where does it all end?  Last week Western Free Press posted a photo of a sign at Arizona State University encouraging students to “avoid long lines and strict ID requirements” by voting on campus alongside a short post about electoral fraud.  This quest to uncover the truth provoked an extremely defensive reaction from University Student Government not entirely dissimilar to the way mainstream political operatives denounce conspiracy theorists.  This arrogance ignores the purpose of journalism and does absolutely nothing constructive for society.

There is no doubt that some of the biggest fights over the size and scope of government are yet to come.  As media outlets ranging from glossy newsmagazines all the way to CNN continue to shed staff, perhaps it’s worth wondering if it’s because the government has crowded them out of the business of real reporting.  As odd as it sounds, maybe instead of acting like any effort to even so much as trim the fat from government spending is totally devastating, the media should be cheering on budget cuts out of sheer cynical self-interest.  Reducing the amount of bureaucracy and the size of government would give the media something to do again.

Hannah Thoreson

Hannah Thoreson is a science and technology writer based in northern Virginia. She earned a physics degree from Arizona State University in 2012 and has been causing trouble ever since.

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Has growth of government made the media obsolete?